In the early 1990s, two terrific Westerns were borne from the same script. Kevin Costner, fresh off of his huge hit with Dances with Wolves teamed up with writer Kevin Jarre (who wrote Glory) for a project about Wyatt Earp. The two disagreed over the direction the story should take; Costner favored a more personal approach to Wyatt while Jarre favored a focus on the many characters surrounding the Earps. Costner and Jarre parted company, each working to develop their own Wyatt Earp film. Jarre would team with George P. Cosmatos for Tombstone, a huge commercial hit starring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton. Costoner would team with Lawrence Kasdan to produce Wyatt Earp, a box office failure, but a more serious attempt to tell the story of a complicated man in a lawless time. Both movies are a lot of fun, but the one I favor is Wyatt Earp.
This movie was originally thought of as a miniseries, and it shows in its length and pacing, taking long stretches to tell Wyatt’s backstory. First, we see him as a kid on the frontier, then as a young man working as a wagon driver, then as a young policeman who loses his wife to typhoid fever, then as a drunken degenerate in Arkansas sentenced to hang, but saved by the timely intervention of his father. Sent far west to start anew, he becomes a buffalo hunter and eventually, a hardened lawman whose hide has been so thickened by hardship and loss that he becomes exactly the kind of person needed to police the wild and lawless towns of the western frontier. Knowing what we know of Earp as a figure of history, his arrival in Tombstone, reunion with his brothers, feud with the Clanton gang, and dramatic shootout at the OK Corral have the feeling of destiny. But this movie makes its pains to show that while all parties in the shootout eventually kind of fell into it, they did so of their own volition. A mixture of pride, bravado, lawlessness and ruthlessness simmered over and eventually we got the most famous bloodbath in Wild West history, followed by revenge killings and a vendetta that took the fight out of the realm of law and order and into the very realm of subjective, self-made justice that Wyatt once fought to constrain. In the end, Wyatt lives long enough to move even further west, to Alaska (though he would eventually spend his final days in Los Angeles) and to have to deal with how his life’s deeds have already begun to spin out of control into legends. Few are those who get to see their legacy born before them, but Wyatt Earp was one of them.
What I most enjoyed about this movie was its slow, deliberate pace, and its willingness to examine the minutiae of a figure who has so often been distorted by tall tales and slipshod history. (It is not a complete telling, barely touching on Earp’s Vendetta Ride or the events of his later life.) Earp wasn’t a white knight. He was a tough lawman, which meant he was the guy trusted enough to enforce the law at the end of a pistol until such time as the rest of civilization could catch up. He was the tough, uncompromising son of a bitch that outlaw towns like Tombstone, Arizona needed, and he took the job because it really was the only thing he was fit for. For him, the wasn’t something he lived for, it was just something he was good at, even if he took his own liberties with it.
Kevin Costner—a guy who I think gets way more static as an actor than he deserves—does a good job as Earp, matched by a marvelous performance by Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday, a drunken scoundrel of a gambler and gunfighter, and Wyatt’s only friend. Much time is spent on the family dramas of Wyatt and his brothers, and Wyatt’s two simultaneous love interests, as well as the tension between Wyatt and his brothers and the confederation of the Earp wives, who eventually have had quite enough of moving around the West, working as lawmen and saloon handlers.
But the real drama here is how the movie handles the Earp-Clanton feud. The moment of truth here, of course, is the shootout at the OK Corral, but specifically the tense hero walk that leads up to it, where we get to focus on the faces of Wyatt, his brothers Virgil and Marshal, and Doc, as they all walk into a situation they know can only end in bloodshed. Like I said, all of them can turn away. None of them choose to. That they feel they have no choice is really no explanation for it; they feel they have no choice because they can’t imagine not getting into this gunfight. Their whole lives have led them to this because they have spent their whole lives getting into these kinds of situation. The carnage that follows is to be expected. That Wyatt gets out of it without ever being nicked by a single bullet suggests that Earp himself is preordained to survive. But the truth is, he’s got the right mixture of luck, skill, timing and temperament not just to outlive his opponents, but to outlive the era that made him famous. And that is no mean thing at all. Far better lawmen have had to settle for less.